It’s been years since I read John O’Hara’s novel “Appointment in Samarra.” The epigraph that introduces the book is a retelling of a 1933 W. Somerset Maugham story that appears in Maugham’s play “Sheppy:”
“There was a merchant in Bagdad (sic) who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra (Iraq) and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw her standing in the crowd and he said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’
“‘That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad (sic), for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.'”
I was talking to a friend this past Tuesday, expressing my exasperation not only about the unfolding of events in Iraq but about America’s seeming inability to understand what was going on. I despaired of airwaves filled with vitriol, of pundits willing to flaunt their ignorance in public and of deposed emperors wearing no clothes.
Where to start.
“You have the worst job, as a columnist, in America this week,” he said, suggesting that trying to explain what was happening in Iraq was going to be insurmountable.
Those were words I didn’t need to hear but he was right: The Middle East was aflame in ways few had foreseen, radical Muslim elements were at the center of it — again — and I didn’t know where to start.
It won’t comfort my readers that I was right about opposing the 2003 Iraq War and that it would prove to be catastrophic, that I predicted the surge was only a temporary solution or that I told a group of students that a Syrian civil war would be the most vicious ever — except that now to recognize and accept such historical truths might help the West avoid keeping that appointment in Samarra.
I don’t have a solution to offer, but in the off chance that some people might like more context than they are getting in the mainstream media I offer the following:
First, the idea that the “Sunni/Shi’a” conflict is a 1,400-year-old war is ill-informed and dangerous: It’s a myth.
Indeed, if such a war had existed between Sunni and Shi’a for 15 centuries there would perhaps be no Shi’a remaining at all as they have been historically so outnumbered they could not have survived as a proud and cohesive identity without acceptance by Sunnis. Indeed, if such a war had existed between Sunni and Shi’a, Baghdad would not have been 45 percent Sunni and 55 percent Shi’a on the eve of “Shock and Awe” and annually millions of Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a, standing shoulder to shoulder, would not make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The prophet Muhammad, 1,435 years ago, called upon the tribes of Arabia to adopt a radical concept: to trade the blood of identity for the beauty of an idea — Islam. Arabs were asked to renounce their familial tribal links and beliefs in a polytheistic pantheon of gods in order to embrace Islam, which was to emerge from the Arabian Peninsula as the third of the world’s major monotheistic faiths.
We define identity as being different from someone or something else — with the someone or something being dependent on context. And because of context, identity can change meaning. Today, in the context of the failed states of Iraq and Syria identity is being politically exploited: Your governments failed you — adopt our identity and we will protect you!
After the death of the prophet Muhammad there was conflict over his succession. Those who would eventually become Shi’a believed that Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law, should succeed him. Ali’s followers lost.
Ali was not elected until he became the fourth caliph. There were succession conflicts that lasted until the Battle of Karbala (Iraq) in 680 A.D., in which Ali’s son Hussein was killed — the battle that irrevocably divided Sunni and Shi’a.
Sadly, the world has never been free of ethnic and religious conflict.
Wars between Catholics and Protestants, Crusades, the Holocaust, the Hutu-Tutsi and Pol Pot genocides, 9/11, the Boko Haram atrocities, sectarian battles in Northern Island and Sri Lanka remind us of what depravity mankind is capable.
Second, today’s Sunni/Shi’a conflict has little to do with religion. Except when Iran turned Shi’a in the 16th century in part as a theocratic response to an aggressive Sunni Ottoman empire, Sunni and Shi’a have generally coexisted: For centuries in the Mideast, Sunnis and Shi’a, along with Druze, Kurds, Jews, Christians and other religious groups lived closely with each another.
It’s not to say that there hasn’t been intercommunal prejudice and violence at times. For example, both Lebanese Sunnis and Maronites historically discriminated against Shi’a, Saddam Hussein (whom some believe America helped rise to power) gassed Shi’a whom he perceived as threats, and in Syria the Alawite-dominated government holds power tightly within its own community. No, it’s to say that such actions are the result of cynical political manipulation of power, exploiting identity for gain rather than just naked prejudice. It’s to say that for most of Islam’s history such sectarian identification was rarely an issue.
I believe that the fratricide we are witnessing today between Sunni and Shi’a is directly related to Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution and, in response to the perceived “Shi’a threat,” aggressive proselytizing by many Salafist and Wahabbi supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Today’s Sunni/Shi’a divide is driven by 21st century identity politics, where rulers, warlords and criminal elements ask their followers to set aside any belief in civil society and embrace instead hatred, paranoia and dreams of revenge. In the case of ISIS in Iraq the indigenous Sunnis are being asked to act on their grudges against the Shi’a led al-Maliki regime.
Third, if there’s one thing I can state with certainty it’s that the 2003 Iraq invasion was the beginning of the end of the Western map of the Middle East. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing parts of the former Ottoman Empire into Western spheres of interest is finished. We have to accept that Iraq as a unitary state is done and accept that Iran is the region’s hegemonic power. We have to help Turkey accept a new neighbor called Kurdistan and help stabilize a Jordan that is being overwhelmed by refugees and battered by political forces from its neighbors.
To avoid an appointment in Samarra we have to help convince Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that supporting Salafist elements in Mesopotamia and elsewhere is inimical to their interests and survival and we have to redouble our efforts to get Israel and Palestine back to the negotiating table.
To thrive, Islam must reject deviant ideologies and ideologues acting in its name. To continue to play a role in the future of the Middle East, the West must recognize that its Orientalist perceptions and stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims are ill-informed and dangerous.
To avoid an appointment in Samarra such truths must be embraced.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.